Javier Marias and Moral Doubts [A Month of a Thousand Forests]
Following on yesterday’s interview with Valerie Miles I thought we’d feature the Javier Marías section from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, mainly because I like the bit about translation and find his reasoning for choosing this bit of Dark Back of Time incredibly interesting.
This is going to follow the format I’m planning on using for all the rest of the authors in this collection: a snippet from their interview followed by a bit of the piece they chose as “their best work.”
And once again, if you order the book now, from the Open Letter site, and use the code “FORESTS,” you can get it for only $15. That’s like $.02 a page. Not even shitting around.
The reason for choosing this last fragment, which is from Negra espalda del tiempo, is because out of all my work, it is the passage that has made me feel the most moral doubts. I have asked myself “should I write this, should I put this into somebody else’s mind? I have the bad luck that it has come into my mind, but should I put this into somebody else’s mind and make him or her feel as bad as I am feeling now?” It’s not that I thought of suppressing it, of course not, not so much as that, but I thought that this is a “putada” to make somebody who might not ever think this at all in his lifetime, to make him think about it, about the idea that nothing ever passes, nothing ever goes away totally. When children get hurt or are frightened or have a nightmare, one of the things a mother says to her child is “ya pasó, ya pasó,” it’s over, it’s finished. You’ve had a really bad time, but now, in the present, you aren’t having that bad time any more. And those words, “it’s over” are very consoling, very healing, as if the present were the thing that counts; it is a consolation to think that that the bad thing or the worst possible thing is over. In this paragraph the idea is that no, it isn’t like that, things aren’t always over. Things that happened are always happening, they are still happening and they shall always happen. There is an echo of Macbeth here: “it seems as if our yesterdays were all under the earth, trying to surface.” I think the fragment is not bad and it has some force, and it is convincing in a way because generally the idea would be no, it’s true that when things are over, things are better. Or you can bear what has happened because it is already past, and the past is always more bearable than the present. So to put in somebody else’s mind the idea that no, watch out, because it’s not like that, is not a very nice thing to do to potential readers.
In my case the writer I have most in mind is undeniably obvious and explicit in many of my books: Shakespeare. I have taken many titles from him for my works: Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, Corazón tan blanco, Cuando fui mortal, and La negra espalda del tiempo, which is not exactly a quote, but it comes from what he says in The Tempest about the abysm, and of course some fragments of works by him are also mentioned openly in my books, fragments from Richard III and Macbeth, and of course The Tempest and from Henry IV and Henry V.
And of course Cervantes, although in the case of Cervantes he comes to me directly in the Spanish language, but also indirectly in the English language because I did translate Tristram Shandy about 30 years ago, and it was a hard task and a long one, and Sterne was so influenced by Cervantes in that novel that in a way I would say that perhaps it is much more Cervantine than any Spanish novel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. And of course by translating that book when I was young I learned so much about writing and about the use of time in the novel, that I also have a rather permanent dialogue as it were with Sterne himself and with Cervantes as well. Of course there are many others, the authors I have translated into Spanish, because translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. If I had a creative writing school, which I would not, but if I did, I would only have students who speak at least two languages and make them translate. Because you happen to be not only a privileged reader, but a privileged writer if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt someone else’s—someone who is much better than you, always if you are translating classics at least—and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments and your writing will improve tremendously. I translated poetry by Nabokov and Faulkner, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Stevenson, Auden, Thomas Browne, Isak Dinesen, Yeats.
Of course translating well is not enough, you must have some ability for invention and some talent and a few other things, but as far as the instrument goes, that is the best possible school. Therefore, those writers I just mentioned influenced me because I did translate them, they are always very much on my mind, and I have adopted in my own writing sometimes solutions that I have found for them in Spanish. Sometimes in translation you cannot always have an absolute equivalent, but you can add something with which you compensate for what you miss. And sometimes I have even used small things; I remember having used something from Nabokov, in one of his poems he talks about the “mellow moon”; which I translated as “la luna pulposa.” Whenever I have used that expression in Spanish, I realize that I am in conversation with my Nabokov. So I have many authors in mind. Funnily enough, there are more poets who I have more conversations with when writing, and that is something that has not been pointed out very often. When critics talk about evident influences, sometimes I think, “but I have never read that author,” but they always link you with other novelists, they never think of poets and I think that one of my strongest influences can be found in the poets, which is why in Tu rostro mañana there are quotations from Eliot, Rilke, Machado, and Ashbery.
The woman watches the streetlamps while trying to protect her hair from the wind with a kerchief, an old-fashioned image not often seen any more, maybe that’s why she’s not very skilled at it and, not managing to tie the kerchief in place, she gives up, her hair flying in the wind like a banner. She has left the night behind, and her bed, and she thinks with some uneasiness about the young man still asleep there, he’s spent too many mornings there since he stayed on without ever saying he was staying, coming and going while she’s at work, leaving and returning whenever he feels like it with no explanations, as if he’d rented out a room and didn’t live with anyone, neither asking nor telling; but at night when he comes to bed in the darkness, far too late, he wakes her up like a hungry animal—like a child who can’t bear to wait—and tears off her nightgown and gets her sheets sweaty, taking up her time for rest, robbing her of her sleep to keep it for himself. The woman stays awake almost all night, thinking about what’s happened in the darkness and wondering if this was the last time, she leaves in the morning weary of her thoughts, fearful that when she comes back after all the hours in the world outside he’ll still be there, and fearful, too, that he’ll be gone; she fears both things equally and hasn’t even tried to tell him to stay or go because it also frightens her to think that he might listen to her, or that he might not, if she were to say one thing or the other, one thing and the other, if she dared. And she doesn’t know what to do so she doesn’t do anything, she just waits for the bus, chilled, watching the streetlamps hold out against the rising light of the sun as if it had nothing to do with them, during this time when their two territories coexist and do not exclude each other though they do not intermingle either, just as the real does not mix with the fictitious, and in fiction it can never be said, “It’s over now, there, there, it’s all over,” not even as consolation or subterfuge, because nothing has really happened, silly, and in the territory that is not truth’s everything goes on happening forever and ever and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out.
(Excerpt translated by Esther Allen)